Travelling to, and arriving in, Finland was an amazing experience. In the first few days I was taken up to Raahe on the north-west coast for a birthday in a Summer cottage. I remember watching the world-cup qualifiers on the TV and being this random, token Australian going for Australia, eating a whole pizza and regretting the decision later, sleeping on what was essentially a fold-out bench and dipping into the freezing cold water after Sauna and, of course, drinking a little bit. The only thing was that, being so early in Summer, the weather hadn’t become so Summery just yet… In fact it was cold. Cold, rainy and cloudy… Not the most idyllic weather. So, that’s when my girlfriend at the time (to recap; who is Finnish and why I was in Finland) suggested we go where there’s some better quality Summer… And what better way to do that, than by spending 7 days in Kefalonia? The largest of Greece’s Ionian Islands!
This was a trip I knew how to pack for! Board shorts, beach towel, t-shirts and a couple of pairs of pants and we were on our way. It was a holiday airline, so it was all Finns specifically travelling to Kefalonia for the same holiday (thankfully staying at different places). Sitting up the front row of the plane, I never expected that if I wanted to use the bathroom that I’d need to line up halfway to the back of the plane! The line stayed there for the whole 3.5 hours of the flight… people should learn to go before getting on the plane, just saying… After we had a pretty good chat with the stewardess who sat in front of us, we landed (and for some reason everyone applauded… probably because the weather was going to be infinitely better) and came out into a hot, humid Mediterranean night.
We were to be staying in a hotel in the town of Skala, on the east of the Island. After landing in Argostoli, capital of the Island (and city that never wakes up! More on that later) the passengers were put onto three separate buses to take us to our destinations. One thing we read before we arrived was that Greeks can be very erratic drivers and the roads were thin and without line markings. One of these was more true than the other… I’m not one for getting motion sickness, but this bus ride made me dizzy! This Island is very mountainous, so the roads are windy and narrow… But you wouldn’t know that with the trucks and buses passing each other at speed. Thankfully, the bus driver (obviously a local) knew what he was doing… and got us there very quickly!
Being night time already, there wasn’t much to do, other than arrive at our hotel, Casa Del Bianco (I recommend it to anyone and everyone) and see what we were up for. A nice enough room. Not the biggest, and two beds pushed together rather than one big bed. But one thing was made clear:
“Don’t flush toilet paper down the toilet, the pipes aren’t thick enough on this island, so they’ll break”
Not flushing toilet paper wasn’t actually that bad, but still, thankfully only while we were here… but we were happy since we wouldn’t be in the room most of the time! So we rested up so we could take on the next day.
Waking up pretty early (after accidentally knocking the curtains down), we went to the other side of town (only about 3 streets away!) to a beachfront restaurant where the holiday company served breakfast and ran-through an orientation, of sorts. The town is very pretty. Walking through a side-street, we see a homely wine bar/cafe with the owners drinking wine and smoking (at 8am!) and come to the main street. There’s a classic town hall with a clock tower across the road.. showing the wrong time… and as we walk down the hill, we notice all the restaurants and cafes. 6 in total and we ended up going to all of these, with shops and businesses lining the tiny main strip. The end of this road came to a left-right intersection, with the water behind the trees ahead. There has never been clearer, bluer water anywhere!
After our little orientation, we decided we’d hire a car (for the 3rd day until the last), but the first 2 days would be spent locally, at the beach, which is where we went straight after. After crossing the road, I realised the beach was all stones, rather than sand, but it was worth it! It was about 10am and 40 degrees celsius, so we unfurled our towels and hopped in the water. The only way it would have been clearer is if it was air. The water stayed shallow for about 3 meters out, then dropped to about 5 meters deep for as far as you could see! If this place wasn’t paradise, it was very close.
The restaurants were usually open from mid-morning. They were always friendly and the food you could get was always amazing. Typical Greek hotpot style food, kleftikos, moussaka, goats meat and delicious olives! It was really easy getting to know the different restaurateurs and listening to their detailed recommendations of food and drink. After two days of beach and restaurants, we got a little tanned (sunburnt!), a little drunk, but it was definitely now an ideal summer!
As I mentioned, we hired a car to use after the first couple of days and, typically, we were a little anxious about hiring a car in a holiday destination (are they going to try and scam us for damage we didn’t do? Hold our deposit? etc,etc) but our worries were pointless. We were greeted by a little blue Hyundai Getz with an almost asthmatic 1.0 litre engine that would wheeze us around the island for the next few days…. I loved that little car!
We decided to do a pretty large trip up north and around to the west and back… But I still needed to adjust to driving on the right side of the road! Even parking on the right side took some practice. But not long after, I was driving like a European (well, like a Finn)! We came to the village of Sami, not particularly exciting, but busy and scenic, we stopped for a quick bite to eat before moving to the main feature: Drogorati Cave followed by Melissani Lake. Which would be two of the four most spectacular sights of the Island. While we were eating, we were treated to the best of English tourists, with one man among the three others asking for a Ham sandwich with ketchup. Asking for Ham louder doesn’t mean they understand you better either! Sorry England, but yours can the worst tourists! Who wants terrible English style toasties in a place famous for its food!? Get a grip!
Driving into the cave grounds (which included a convenient pool!) there was no real indication of the cave. After getting tickets in the gift shop, we walked around the back and came to a set of steps down a cavernous climb… A short walk down some steps, past little water flows, and we came to the expanse of the main chamber. Stalactites and Stalagmites covered the place, surrounding a large flatter area in the middle. Also, we noticed an optical illusion where the formations created a heart. Very handy for tacky photos for couples! Fun fact – the cave’s acoustics are so good, they actually hold concerts and musical performances here! Unfortunately we wouldn’t be experiencing that this time. So we left, coming into the scorching heat, retreating to the pool before heading to Melissani lake.
After some more winding roads, we came to Melissani Lake. An underground lake running through the island. The roof of the original cave collapsed, leaving a large hole from which you can look down to the pristine clear water that flows through. But that’s not the best bit. Walking down a short tunnel walkway, we approached one of the boats which would take us around this little lake (Unfortunately swimming isn’t allowed) and I’m almost confused by the boats which look like they’re floating on nothing. The water is 25 meters deep and clear as glass! (I really wish I took more pictures!) A guide took us on a rowboat across the lake and into a cave section, while a dead-end, is like an airport hangar in size, but only accessible through a tiny gap in the rubble of the old collapsed ceiling. This lake is honestly a wonder of the world and I can’t do justice with my pictures… so I added 2 better ones below.
Villages on the Med
Kefalonia is an amazingly mountainous island. Some parts are nice and flat and creep out of the water, but other areas make it seem like a mountain in the depths with just the top sticking out of the water. Some of these almost impossible angles have some amazing villages carved into the side of them and one of them is Fiskardo. Driving over the mountain, looking across the water to the mythical island of Ithica, this sits on the north of the island and the little Getz got us there in some good comfort (while dodging buses and trucks!). Parking at the top, we crawled down the steps of some thin alleyways towards the water and docks of the village, examining the old church on the way down. Art stores, cafes and plenty of boats add to the charm of this place, but unfortunately it wasn’t time for lunch quite yet and we were going to sample some more food on the other side of the eastern half of the Island, Assos.
This town was my absolute favourite part of Kefalonia and heaven on earth! Turning off the main road, you come down a winding hill to a small village leading to a thin strip of land joining a peninsula where the ancient Assos castle looks over the village. The town still has damaged buildings from an earthquake in 1953 (mainly to preserve their unique architecture), with holes in roofs, sometimes only facades remaining. And the rustic look with traditional colours gives an amazing character to this place. It definitely holds the greatest beauty on this island. As a bonus, it has a sheltered little harbour which winds away from the ocean and is second only to Melissani lake for clarity. It felt unfair that a sailboat pulled up as we were here and the occupants dove off and began to swim and I had forgotten to wear my swim shorts… But I was too busy looking in wonder at this slice of paradise! Unfortunately the food we had wasn’t great, but we did go to a kiosk, so that explains it… If I had a boat we could have pulled up outside one of the restaurants and followed that with a swim!
Alas we had to leave Assos as the day was dragging on, so we had to go see Myrtos beach. It was too late to stop in, but we went the next day. Again, this was nestled at the bottom of a large mountainside, but as soon as we saw it, there were just no words to say. Pulling over on the side of the road, the cliff showed a windy road down to a thin stretch of stone beach which lay between the mountain and a powder blue ocean. The sun was setting and the sight was one that made me stop and think about what it is that life has to offer. This view is the reason you come to Kefalonia (besides Assos, Melissano and Drogorati), that which looks over Myrtos beach, which the beer is, appropriately, named after. Coming back the next day, we found that the water wasn’t actually clear. It’s a cloudy white/blue which is a natural effect from the marble and limestone rocks. There is just no place like it, that I can damn-well guarantee.
Argostoli – Capital of the Island and city that never opens!
I know this blog is a pretty long one… but I’m about to save some time. Argostoli is the main city. Three times we tried to go here and every time, nothing was open! The third time we went was coming back through from Lixouri on the western half of the island. Unfortunately the camera had no battery and this is just before the first iphone came out (so no, I couldn’t take any selfies or instagrams of everything… unfortunately). This city was beautiful with its marble shopping strip, but it would have been better if it was open! We managed to find an open cafe and I had an amazing coffee, but that was it unfortunately… there is a picture of my then girlfriend looking less than impressed and that was the highlight of the city unfortunately… avoid Argostoli and you won’t be disappointed… everything else is amazing though!
The last day, we had no choice but to head back to Skala and have a bit of fun enjoying ourselves in our favourite bar, rather than waste time in Argostoli. The trip back revealed a nice hidden mountain village at a distance which captivated me in a way. Unfortunately, coming back to Skala, we were 3 minutes away and came across a broken fence and a broken motorbike/scooter. A pair of English tourists had crashed through a fence, narrowly missing impaling themselves. Luckily they were relatively okay (one broken arm and some cuts and scrapes) and a local, who happened to be a doctor, came along and offered to wait for the ambulance to come.
This was our final night, so we had a pretty good time, eating (lots) and drinking (a bit more) in our favourite place before we headed back to Finland the next afternoon (after some last minute beach lazing, of course).
So we woke up early(ish) got some breakfast and returned the little Getz, a car I still miss (it had personality) and headed back to Finland on an afternoon flight… The passengers didn’t applaud this time, but fortunately there was finally some good summer weather waiting for us when we landed back in Helsinki!